curly hair bias

My hair is naturally curly/wavy and has been since I was a baby. My mom’s hair is naturally pin-straight and I have literally never seen her without a perm. I grew up in a household that revered curls, had a long string of boyfriends who adored my curls, and have never gotten anything but praise for my own voluminous curls.

When I cut my hair short and began straightening it, I got some comments and e-mails lamenting the loss of my curls. I am about 6,000% happier now with short, straight hair than I ever was with long curls and don’t foresee going back anytime soon. And over time I’ve realized that despite the near-constant influx of praise for my curly hair, I never actually liked it. Never felt like myself in it. Even though I never got anything but positive feedback about my hair, I never enjoyed it or felt like it suited me. I felt like it was the most dominant thing about my appearance, that it overtook nearly everything else about me, engulfed me, even eclipsed me. Also my curls were delicate and unpredictable. A stiff breeze or a shirt pulled over my head would completely change how my hair looked for the remainder of the day. It drove me nuts that my hair took such intense and constant babying to look good. My current ‘do is reliable, predictable, blissfully boring.

But even while I struggled to tolerate my own curls, I actively LOVED curls on others. I grew up with a gal named Tracy who had the shiniest, bounciest, most perfect ringlet curls I’ve ever seen in my life, and I would stare at her longingly from afar. When I went down to San Diego for the CAbi event, one of the spring line models had a massive mane of untamed curls and I absolutely swooned over how gorgeous she looked. Although I think she looks dynamite no matter how she styles it, I completely adore Solange Knowles’ hair worn big and natural. Alex Kingston’s curls just add to her overall energy and radiance, and I can’t imagine her without them. I think curls are gorgeous. Just not on me.

Back in March, I gave a presentation to a women’s leadership program about dress, comportment, and grooming for personal branding and professional situations. One of the young women in the program asked if she should straighten her curly hair for interviews and I was surprised by the rage that surged through me. I have short, straight hair now, but when I had long, curly hair I wore it down to interviews. And I got just about every job I ever applied for. Not only have I never been told to straighten my curls or wear them up to look appropriately professional, I had never even heard of such nonsense until a few years ago. And, to this day, I am thunderstruck that curly-haired women are told they look wild, unkempt, and even “crazy” because of their natural hair. This is sexist. No curly-haired man is ever told to straighten his hair or risk looking unwashed. This is racist. Curls exist across the world, but they are virtually always present in African people, and also common among Middle-Eastern people, Jewish people, and other ethnic minorities. This is ludicrous. I understand that interviews and professional situations often demand slightly more buttoned-up, conformist versions of ourselves, but to tell curly-haired women that their natural hair texture is inappropriate is akin to telling them that their eye color is inappropriate.

What did I tell the young woman who asked about straightening her own curls? Well, after a rather lengthy rant, I told her to do what made her feel the most confident and comfortable. I admire appearance-related activism, but also respect that such acts aren’t always possible. And I know that sometimes you’ve got to get inside a system before you can spark change. Curly hair bias is awful and should be abolished. But if it’s something that you, personally, worry about it’s your prerogative to manage that anxiety as you see best.

I hope, though, that every curly girl out there will remember that there is nothing wrong, shameful, dirty, unkempt, or crazy about curls. Any more than there is anything wrong, shameful, dirty, unkempt, or crazy about having blue eyes.

Image courtesy del mich

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